The Rajya Sabha on Tuesday passed the Special Protection Group (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid a walkout by the Congress MPs. The Lok Sabha had already passed the bill on November 27.
The amendments will provide security to the prime minister and members of his immediate family who stay with him at the official residence. This security cover will also be provided to former prime ministers and their immediate families, residing at the official residence, for a period of five years from the date on which the prime minister ceases to hold the office.
The Congress, which has been protesting against the removal of the SPG security cover to the Gandhi family, on Tuesday continued to oppose the amendments in the Rajya Sabha. But Home Minister Amit Shah said the amendments were not introduced with the Gandhi family in mind, and that even the security cover of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be downgraded five years after he leaves office.
During the discussions in the Upper House, leaders of the Congress as well as other parties accused the BJP of playing vendetta politics. Congress leader Vivek Tankha said that politics had come to such a point that the safety of political leaders was no longer taken seriously. “What kind of democracy it is? You are putting the Opposition to threat,” Tankha said, according to PTI. “Please protect this family. God forbid, if one more fatal incident happens then who would take blame of it?”
Last month, the SPG security cover was withdrawn from Congress President Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and they were instead granted Z-plus category protection across India, which entitles them to protection by the Central Reserve Police Force. In August, the government had withdrawn former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Protection Group security cover. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now the only leader with SPG security.
Shah told the Upper House that an investigation has been initiated into the security breach at Priyanka Gandhi’s home and three officers have been suspended. “There is no political vendetta behind this,” Shah said, according to The Hindu. “The entire country’s security is the government’s responsibility.”
Shah claimed the security breach was a “coincidence” as Rahul Gandhi was also about to arrive around the same time. “The car and timing were same, such was the coincidence,” he said. “That’s why the car with Sharda Tyagi [a Congress leader who was in the group] went in without security check.”
According to a PTI report, seven unknown people drove a car up to the porch of the Vadras’ Lodhi Estate home on November 26, walked up to the Congress leader and asked for photographs. Priyanka Gandhi spoke to them, took pictures with them and then left, the report said. The Congress leader’s office has complained to the Central Reserve Police Force about the security breach.
Tankha blamed the downgradation of the Gandhi family’s security for the security breach. “This is not party politics. Rise over it,” he said.
Besides the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Manoj Kumar Jha and Communist Party of India MP Binoy Viswam also opposed the amendments. Viswam said the Centre’s reasoning for the bill’s introduction as a cost-cutting measure was unnecessary as lakhs of crores of rupees were wasted in non-performing assets. “It is their vendetta against Nehru, his principles, that they are bringing this Bill,” he said.
Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav said the definition of security threats changed with each government. “People should not feel that this has been done for vindictive politics,” Yadav said. He added that the home minister must “use his conscience” before deciding on threat perceptions.
Speaking in support of the bill, BJP MP Neeraj Shekhar said unnecessary money was being spent on SPG security but proposed that a separate force should be created to protect former prime ministers and their families.
Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy, who introduced the bill in the House, said that there was no politics in the amendments. “We have taken this step considering the security needs of the prime minister,” he said.
Amit Shah, while responding to the Opposition parties, said, “This amendment is not brought in by keeping Gandhis in mind, but, one thing that I can say for sure is that the previous four amendments were done by keeping only one family in mind.” Pointing out that Manmohan Singh’s security cover was also withdrawn, Shah said the Congress did not protest this much at the time.
The Special Protection Group was set up in 1985, a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 1991, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, the SPG Act was amended to allow the force to protect former prime ministers and their immediate family for 10 years from the date they demit office.
During a discussion in the Lok Sabha last month, Amit Shah defended the government’s decision and accused the Congress of treating SPG cover like a “status symbol”, pointing out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not spend money on hotels during technical halts while travelling abroad, and takes bath and rest at airport terminals.
Shah said his government would restore the original intent of the SPG cover, which was to provide security for the prime minister. Refuting any charges of the move being a “political vendetta”, he had said: “The BJP does not carry out any action with a vindictive approach. It was the Congress which took many such decisions in the past. The term ‘special’ indicates its [SPG’s] special purpose. Many countries have such elite cover exclusively for their respective heads of state.”